If you really like it you can have the rights,
It could make a million for you overnight.
If you must return it, you can send it here
But I need a break and I want to be a paperback writer
“Paperback Writer” by Lennon/McCartney
Hmmmm. What to talk about this month? So many possibilities…
One of the few interesting topics to arise from the melodrama at the beginning of November was the theorem that there is something intrinsically more noble about writing for love versus writing for money. There seemed to be a notion that these two motives were mutually exclusive.
Cultural stereotypes reinforce the fantasy. The true artist slaves away in virtual isolation on her LJ, selling her self-published tome to an enlightened readership of one or two hundred and then giving the proceeds to charity. Meanwhile, in Mordor, the Dark Lord — Lady — WhatEVAH — sits scribbling out cheap, tawdry commercial fiction and cackling insanely as the piles of gold multiply as if by black magic.
I don’t know if it’s a holdover from the Puritan Work Ethic, but while we all understand and approve of the concept of a decent wage for decent work, it’s hard to get past the notion that art — be it painting, pottery, piobaireachd, or poetry — is somehow more noble, even more credible when it’s done for art’s sake.
“Commercial success” is frequently translated (especially by the unsuccessful) to mean selling one’s soul for filthy lucre. I mean, how can it be right to make money off a job you love? How can it be right to make money from something so fun? (Unless you’re an actress or a sport’s figure. God knows they’re worth every penny.)
Even I admit that every so often I’m struck by the weirdness of my job description: making up stories — fantasizing on paper — so that other people can buy and read my imaginings. Crime writer Lawrence Block (who wrote, among other things, lesbian pulp fiction during his long and prolific career) calls it Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.
Writing is one of the cool jobs. It’s also one of those jobs that a lot of people feel like they could do just as well or better than the professionals. I’d never have to write another word if I had a dollar for every person who’s told me he’d like to be a writer or that she plans to one day write or that they are writers but they’ve never got around to finishing anything — or maybe it’s submitting they’ve never got around to. Whichever it is, writing is one of those occupations that a lot of people feel qualified to do, even if they have little or no training. Everyone’s got a story to tell. Writing is one of the arts, and the arts are not like banking or engineering or brain surgery. We all get a smattering of the different arts as electives in school — and receive a pat on the head for our efforts — and we all know art is subjective, so…why shouldn’t we have a bash?
The other thing about writing is that, unlike painting or playing in a band, it’s viewed as a little more secure, a little more stable, a little more bourgeois. A lot of people seem to make a living writing. And, in fact, a recent article from Publisher’s Weekly listed the median wage/salary for writers as $44,792 versus the overall workforce average of $39,280. True, it’s mostly in non-fiction that people make a living, but what with ebooks and self-publishing, more people seem to be making money spinning stories these days than ever before.
I think those twin misconceptions — that anyone can write and that all writers make money at it — are perhaps why so many people enter into a publishing career without bothering to study either their craft or the industry they plan to conquer. This lack of preparedness is validated by the underlying conviction that real artists, real writers write for love, not money. Enthusiasm and sincerity ought to be enough when we feel the story so intensely. Secretly, of course, most authors hope to make money at their writing. And I think some of these people eventually suffer a kind of aesthetic schism when their longing for success collides with their underlying belief that the real artist is above such material concerns.
During the entire year I’ve been writing this column, writers, reviewers, and readers have been demanding that publishers get with the program and figure out how to pattern themselves on all that’s superior in mainstream publishing. We’ve discussed the need for publishers in our genre to start conducting business like “real” or mainstream publishers. We’ve talked and talked about the need for qualified and trained editors and copyeditors, for good formatting, for sites that make it easy to purchase, for excellent cover art. We’ve debated at great and loud length the need for professionalism in every aspect of this genre from contracts to reviews. Yet in recent weeks whispers have surfaced about certain authors “cashing in” or “selling out.” They’re just in it for the money.
This treasured notion that artists, real artists, love their art so much that they’re happy, nay honored, to do it for free, that the act of Creation should be recompense enough, and that even if the artist can’t earn enough to support herself, passion for her art will keep her producing for the greater good is nonsense. It’s nonsense because it presupposes that the commercially successful artist, the skilled and disciplined professional, does not love his art or does not love his art as much as the gifted amateur.
This sentiment is more prevalent in m/m than any other genre I’ve worked in, and I think it’s due to m/m’s ties with fandom and fan fiction. In fandom everything — be it fiction, vid, art or you name it — is for the greater good. People contribute freely because it is all for the shared enjoyment of the fans. To make money off the fandom is a no-no. But one reason, the major reason, profit is a no-no is because the subject of all this fiction, vid, and artwork belongs to someone else. Fan fiction riffs off someone else’s creation. So charging for your Supernatural fan fiction becomes both ethically and legally complicated.
Charging for your own creative work, however, is no less ethical than mowing someone’s lawn, babysitting their kid, or performing a much needed brain transplant. It’s not complicated. You have a product, the result of your imagination and talent and time, and others are paying to enjoy those results. Pretty straightforward, right? Yet we have those who sneer at the idea of charging for music or stories or art. As though it was the god-given duty of those blessed with talent to share that talent for free.
I guess if we take that argument to its ultimate conclusion, anyone good at anything should provide the bounty of their ability — be it carpenter or gourmet chef — to the rest of us gratis. But since we live neither in the age of patrons or a global hippy commune, somehow we all have to earn a living. And it is not unreasonable that we try to earn a living doing the things we’re good at, the things we have a talent for, whether it’s fixing car engines or grooming dogs or diving for pearls or writing stories.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who became a successful writer of fiction simply to make money. Not least because there are easier and more certain ways to earn cash. People fall into writing like they do any other job. Sometimes there’s a game plan. I knew I would be a writer from the time I was in elementary school. But for others…it’s just the way the cards fall. Sometimes a hobby turns into a fulltime profession. Sometimes an aptitude turns into a marketable skill. Sometimes — more often than you’d think — a frustrated reader thinks to herself, I could do better than that! And a career is born. It’s been my experience that the people who want to write because they believe all writers are rich, are the people who don’t stick with it when reality sinks in.
The one single universal trait I’ve noticed in all successful writers — in fact, in every writer I’ve met — is the need to communicate. What it is we’re trying to communicate may differ widely, but that drive to reach others with our words is true of every writer I know. Maybe your own experience has been different, and if so, I’d love to hear it. I believe that even those writers who write strictly for their own pleasure are compelled by the need to record their thoughts and ideas.
Writing, like any creative endeavor, is in itself satisfying and pleasurable. That’s one reason why we continue to dream and imagine and then scribble down those fantasies long before we’re successful — and even when we never are successful. I think the only real differences between the commercial writer and the hobbyist are discipline and professionalism. The passion for the work is the same. I don’t believe there is a right reason or wrong reason to become a writer. Hoping to make enough money to earn a living at writing is not wrong. It is not less noble than writing simply because you love to write. I don’t know any writer who doesn’t love writing — even when they hate it.
While I can’t explain what it is that drives people to want to write and share their stories, I do know that drive is a powerful one. Writing is not easy. And publishing is harder. But since the beginning of modern publishing, writers have put themselves through the gauntlet of rejection from agents, publishers, reviewers and sometimes readers because the need to share their stories is so powerful.
Every bit as powerful as the need the rest of us have for those stories to be shared.